Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory turns 60

Sixty years ago, on September 1, 1950, Frank Hardy published Power Without Glory, one of the most influential and provocative pieces of working-class literature ever written in Australia. It met with wide acclaim and respect from workers through to intellectuals, while being ridiculed and condemned by conservatives and reactionaries of the day.

At the time, Australia was in the grip of the austere right-wing government led by arch-conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Menzies and the conservatives around him (along with sections of the Labor Party opposition) were rabidly anti-communist and anti-worker. Menzies had come to power in the 1949 election as leader of the Liberal Party, which he helped found after the first hung parliament in Australia in 1940 (when he was head of the United Australia Party).

ALP strikebreaking

The year 1949 was a significant turning point in Australia’s postwar history. A bitter and drawn-out strike by 23,000 miners in the coalfields of New South Wales lasted seven weeks, ending only when the Chifley Labor government used the Australian Defence Force to break the strike — the first time troops were used systematically in Australia to break strike action — including as scabs to re-open the pits. The crusade against the trade union militants and Communist Party of Australia (CPA) members who led the strike played into the hands of the conservative opposition, and Menzies comfortably won the December election.

The growth in influence of the CPA, along with the activity of other revolutionaries and militants active in the trade unions, spread radical ideas and debate through workplaces, pubs and homes across Australia in the wake of the horror and destruction of World War II. The reality of the capitalist system, with its wars, exploitation and misery, was the backdrop to this discussion. The winning of the Queensland state seat of Bowen in 1944 (and again in 1947) by CPA member Fred Paterson, the first and only Communist elected to a state or federal legislature, along with the strike wave of 1948-49, was indicative of the influence and support for the CPA.

Criminal charges

The Menzies government acted to stem this growth in the influence of the CPA, and with the backing of Australia’s corporate ruling elite and their media, continued the anti-communist fervour in the wake of the failed miners’ strike. On October 19, 1950, the federal government succeeded in passing through the Senate the Communist Party Dissolution Act. Less than a week after the act became law (and barely six weeks after Power Without Glory had been published) Hardy was arrested by detectives at his home in Melbourne on October 25 and taken to the Melbourne city watch-house, where he was charged with criminal libel.

The charge was initially brought by Ellen Wren, wife of the multimillionaire John Wren, on the allegation that Hardy “did maliciously publish of and concerning the informant a defamatory libel in the form of a book entitled Power Without Glory …”. The law under which Hardy was charged was an old English law and carried the prospect of a long prison sentence. As the trial against Hardy evolved, it was clear that John Wren was the real instigator of the charge.

The charge against Hardy sparked both deep polarisation and strong support for him. A Defend Hardy Campaign was initiated, and public meetings and protest actions were held all across Australia. The court attempted to muzzle Hardy as well as prevent any further publication of the book. Police spies and spooks turned up at Defend Hardy Campaign and trade union support meetings to try to catch Hardy and his supporters out. Not surprisingly, the first print-run sold out quickly, and copies were passed around at workplaces in the thousands. An underground print-run was organised by Hardy and his supporters, with volunteers secretly printing and binding thousands of copies.

Power Without Glory struck a strong chord with so many people, especially workers, because, while a fictional work, it was quite clearly a composite based on fact and fiction. It deftly peels away the façade of democracy and justice proclaimed by the ruling class, revealing the crime, corruption and graft at all levels of government, so endemic in capitalist society. The rorts of government, the backdoor deals and the role of the rich and powerful come strikingly to life, set in Victoria from the early 1900s to the late 1940s. Above all else, it is a sharp critique of the role and function of the Labor Party, capturing its essence as a craven pro-capitalist party.

The case against Hardy was without doubt part of the broader push to ban the CPA and marginalise its influence in the workers’ movement. The legal fight and broader campaign to defend Hardy were without precedent in Australia, though certainly in the tradition of earlier democratic rights campaigns, such as that to defend members of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I anti-conscription movement, in which the IWW played a leading role.

The hearings and trial ran for nine months, with Hardy finally acquitted in the Supreme Court in June 1951. Shortly thereafter, the referendum to ban the CPA failed, following the successful appeal by the CPA in the High Court against the Communist Party Dissolution Act.

‘Nameless’ history makers

The background to the writing of Power Without Glory, along with the trial and the defence campaign, is the subject of a book written by Hardy in 1961 titled The Hard Way. It is also a compelling read of struggle and solidarity and an insight into Hardy’s approach to writing and life in the CPA. In The Hard Way, he unreservedly pays tribute to the “nameless ones” who campaigned in his defence:

“The nameless ones who contributed a coin to the defence fund, voted for a resolution, signed a petition … the nameless ones who sewed … with unpractised hands the sheets of the second edition; the nameless ones who organised the meetings, the very definitely nameless ones who ‘robbed’ the Industrial Press to recapture the second edition; the nameless ones who passed the books from hand to hand until the ill-bound copies fell apart … the nameless ones who placed our message in the letter boxes of history. What shall I say about them? Only this: to them the victory belongs, to them the future belongs, for they, the people, are the real makers of history.”